Making It Up as I Go Along Alice Brock, made famous in Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," believes in improvisation. And it's a good thing, too — she knew nothing about running a restaurant when she opened her now legendary business.

Making It Up as I Go Along

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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


Our This I Believe essay today comes from Alice Brock. She once owned Alice's Restaurant, the one that inspired the famous 18-minute talking blues song by Arlo Guthrie. The song, and later the movie, chronicled events that began on Thanksgiving Day in 1965. It involved a friendly group of hippies, some illegally dumped garbage, and the draft for the Vietnam War, and, of course, Alice's Restaurant.

(Soundbite of song "Alice's Restaurant")

Mr. ARLO GUTHRIE (Musician): (Singing) You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.

NORRIS: With that song, Alice and her restaurant became an iconic image for the counterculture of the day. Here's our series curator, independent producer, Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: In the case of icons, the popular image is not necessarily an accurate representation of the person who inspired it. But Alice Brock's beliefs are not too distant from those commemorated by Arlo Guthrie's song. They echo the spirit of a time. And although she has left the restaurant business, she still lives by codes she developed there. Here is Alice Brock with her essay for This I Believe.

Ms. ALICE BROCK (Former Owner, Alice's Restaurant): Just because you only have six plates and three glasses is no reason why you can't invite 12 people to dinner. You can drink out of a jelly jar or a tin can. And there are lots of things you can use for plates, like hubcaps lined with tin foil. I once made a steak dinner in an apartment that had only one knife. We used scissors. It was quite memorable.

I believe in improvising. It's exciting. It's an adventure, a challenge, and a chance to be creative. Not being locked into a plan or a prescribed way of doing something leaves room for all kinds of wonderful stuff to happen. You don't always have to follow a recipe. I tend to use more butter, eggs and garlic than a recipe calls for. And the only unfortunate change this brings about is in my size.

I didn't study how to own and run a restaurant. I pretty much made it up as I went along. I was swept up with the idea, the fantasy of having a restaurant, the chance to make something happen. It never occurred to me I couldn't do it. I only felt that way after I opened up, but by then it was too late. And of course, making money at it was way down on the list of what mattered. And that allowed me the freedom to focus on creating something really wonderful.

I had no idea how anything was supposed to be. I just barreled ahead, discovering all kinds of possibilities and making plenty of mistakes. And those are really great opportunities to learn. When something works, well, that's that. But when it doesn't, I have to think about why, and I have to come up with some other way that will make it work. Mistakes lead to discovery and that can produce delight, like cream of salt and pepper soup. I made it in a pinch once, and believe me, it's good. You should try it.

In my restaurant, I rarely hired people who were trained. That wasn't important. As long as you could take down an order, treat people well and give them an experience they would remember, I didn't care if you were dressed up as a piece of broccoli. In fact, it was the oddity that brought richness to everyone.

Someone said it was too bad my restaurant was a failure. Why? Because it went bankrupt? I came away richer than any restaurant owner could possible dream of, just not in terms of money.

My belief in improvising was confirmed when I closed my last restaurant 29 years ago. I just walked away. I didn't make any plans. I left everything behind and I came to live in Provincetown, where I always wanted to live and paint. I'm still making it up as I go along. I believe there is no one way to do things. The way that works for me is the way that works right now, but that might change tomorrow.

ALLISON: Alice Brock with her essay for This I Believe.

Brock is now a painter in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she has her own gallery. Consistent with her beliefs, she sometimes gathers rocks on the beach and makes little drawings on them and then puts them back on the beach or wherever she feels like putting them.

Our invitation to write for this series goes out to everyone. So if you're interested, visit to find out more and to see the recipe for Alice Brock's cream of salt and pepper soup.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

(Soundbite of song "Alice's Restaurant")

Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.

NORRIS: Our This I Believe essays are produced by Jay Allison with Viki Merrick, who, by the way, worked as a bartender in Alice Brock's restaurant.

Next Sunday on WEEKEND EDITION, an essay from Joel Engardio on a belief in tolerance, which he developed as a child going door-to-door with his mother, a Jehovah's Witness.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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